Part 1: Preparation
One thing most producers need help with is curating this library and honing their toolkit. I wrote this to help you get the most out of your collection of music tools. You already know how to collect samples and plugins. It’s easy to amass a large pile of stuff, but can you find the real gems when the time is right? I hopw to help you save time on projects, maintain your state of flow, and develop your unique musical style in greater detail using the tips in this post.
How do you decide what to keep? It’s important to develop a strong sense of musical taste. The goal is to take what the musical world has to offer and apply your taste as a filter, to scrap the junk or things your just don’t need, and end up with the best. Your resulting tools will end up being the best choice for you almost every time. Since the decisions have already been made, you are free to produce music in a state of less friction.
How long does the process take? Organizing a music tool library could take some people years. The most successful musicians don’t download every single sample pack that comes out, so for them, it would probably take more like days/weeks or possibly months. For my library, it took about two months. I definitely don’t consider myself on the top teir of producers.
If you are addicted to downloading new sounds like many struggling producers, it’s important to know that every second spent downloading a new sound is a second not spent producing music with your existing sounds. Every sound you add to your library is another choice to make. How many lead synth instruments do you really need?
Once you have a basic curated library of samples, your sounds are likely fine to work with. You could probably produce your best song of your life using only those sounds and maybe a few vocal tracks layered on top. That said, it’s really hard to resist the onslaught of advertisement and the idea that one day you’ll find your true sound…that perfect kick…the best pads.” Yeah right! Just work with what you end up with after your initial curation process. you can rest assured knowing that your taste and style is more refined than 90% of the rest of producers in the world.
Building a library is a beautiful thing. Have you ever been in someone’s home that had a personally curated library of books? Or listened to a very well-curated playlist on Spotify? You can actually get to know that person to an extent from the type of books they choose, the way they organize, the bookshelves they chose, whether they chose first editions or reproductions, and maybe even whether they dust the shelves.
A library or curated collection of anything is a window into our personality for another human being to explore and learn. As a producer of music, the song is an intermediary to this, but still a portal into what makes you human and alive. You can form real human connections with your music and a curated library will enhance this.
Speed and efficiency are of the utmost importance in modern music production. When I imagine Mozart or Beethoven banging out the hits, I can’t see them thinking – “if I only had more pianos, I could access more tones when I play and that could inspire me…then I could finish my masterpiece.” But as producers we obsess over digital gear all the time like it will improve our songs.
Instead, I can see the composer greats saying something like, “the Eb4 on this piano needs tuning but I need to get paid for this commission, so I’ll just ignore it and try to go with the flow, that’s where I get my best work done. when I get paid I can rent a better piano.”
Creativity and Flow State
Have you ever had a large box of crayons, the 200 pack or whatever with all of the major colors, and carefully chosen your 5-10 colors of choice for the coloring book page you were about to do? Remember the smoothness of switching from color to color and completing your page in all of its wonders. There would be no stopping to think “what color will the leaves of the tree be” because that choice has already been made. This is the flow state! There is no secret to accessing it – your mind will automatically switch this on when given the right conditions. The difficult part is setting up your environment to approach perfection.
There is nothing like starting a weekend with nothing to do other than making music and coming out on Monday morning with 9 brand new song arrangements. Nothing! The sense of accomplishment is unreal. This process is all about removing friction from your art creation workflow.
Style and Genre
In today’s music world, it is not an option for you to sound like everyone else and still make a good living. You have got to develop a unique sound that tells a story or provides an entrancing experience to listeners, or you will be passed over quickly. Working hard on curation will give you a serious leg up on the competition.
Below are my favorite definitions of genre and style.
- This is more of the purpose of the song. Is it dance music? Will someone rap over top of it for 16 bars at a time? Or will people study nuclear physics while listening to it on a focus playlist while they are in school?
Examples of genres include pop, rock, EDM, hip-hop, punk rock, trance, hi-tech trance and more. People dance, drive, headbang, and relax to these genres of music. That’s their purpose.
- This is more of the vibe and emotion of the song. The mood and atmosphere.
Examples of style include dreamy, aggressive, raunchy, cacophonous, soothing, etc. A hip hop song can be agressive or dreamy. That’s the style of the song. Raunchy is not a genre, but definitely a style.
NOTE: Please backup your computer before following any of my advice. It’s great to try organizing things but it sometimes backfires! Let’s get to work on the Ableton User Library.
Maybe you are a multi-genre producer and want to choose a trap snare sample for your client’s project. Instead of traveling through different sample packs and subfolders to find individual snare samples only to have forgotten what the last one sounded like, wouldn’t it be nice to have all of your trap snares in one folder?
As a general rule of thumb, many computer power-users like to see no more than 15-30 items in a folder when possible. Imagine auditioning 3000 crash samples only to end up with 20 rock crashes, 25 pop crashes, 15 hip hop crashes, etc. If you want to stay within the genre bounds, it’s easy to do so, because everything is labeled and sorted. If you want to bend genres, you can do that in a thoughtful and intentional way. If you want to download my personal file structure, head over to the downloads page.
Ableton Live in particular comes with a great structure for its browser. But, you may want to organize VST plugins, AU plugins, custom Audio Effect Racks you’ve made all in the same place. The Ableton user library is a great place to do this. You can create a folder called whatever you want under the User Library and add almost everything you want to access in that folder. The zen of audio production is within reach young grasshopper! One day soon, you will have effects, samples, VSTi instruments and more within a few clicks. Mentally, you will reduce cognitive load so more brain power is freed up to create better music. This user library is also more portable and easier to backup and restore should something go awry with your startup disk or external hard drive where you store your main user library.
In your latest track, how did you choose the instruments? Did you have a template set up only to make a few tweaks as you went? Was it more of a start from scratch build it from nothing approach, where every single choice was made as you went? Hopefully, for musicality and sanity’s sake, it was somewhere in the middle. I bet the tracks you write using the template approach get more listens and downloads. I bet they take you less time to write, and sometimes they don’t feel like they could live up to your masterpiece opus, but they can and probably will. It’s called workflow for a reason. The flow state is real and you already have the ability to access it.
Instinct vs Logic: Your gut reaction can be a fine curation tool, as can active listening and the application of logic. I really recommend sticking to criteria as mentioned above, but sometimes it’s fun to just curate samples based on instinct. You can end up with a whole other world of sounds this way, that never would have made it into your collection in the first place.
It’s very important to imagine or demo the sounds you are choosing in actual music. If you only choose based on one criterion, you are likely to be disappointed with the results. Sometimes drums don’t knock as hard once you add them to a song, and if you’ve narrowed your choices down to only lackluster samples that fail when it comes to actual songwriting use, I hope you backed up that user library!
Think about what your ideal library looks like and what you would like to have to show for your work when it’s all said and done.
- Approximately how many samples and plugins would you like to end up keeping?
- How will you judge the items for quality and usefulness?
- Will you archive or delete reject samples?
- Do you want to duplicate and organize favorites or will you delete rejects and leave the best in place?
- Will you be keeping license files will all the samples?
- How will you organize your folder structure?
The recurring theme here is that your organizational preferences are the most important thing unless your OCD is getting in the way of music production, which it easily can. Do you prefer your hi hat samples in separate open and closed folders? What about sample packs?
So today I have a folder structure for you guys to download, this is a copy from my personal Ableton User Library. I really hope this helps some producers out! I’ll have more stuff to give away free in the next few days.